Around the beginning of the year, headlines told of the suicide of Josh “Leelah” Alcorn, a teen who self-identified first as gay, then as transgender. In the wake of this unspeakable tragedy, Josh’s suicide note was made public. In the note, he blamed his parents and their Christian faith for failing to adequately respond to his needs.
Immediately, venomous attacks were leveled at Josh’s parents. Internet commenters, bloggers, and journalists loudly blamed evangelical Christianity, and its failure to affirm transgender identities as something biblically moral, as a factor in Josh’s suicide. Sex columnist Dan Savage went so far as to suggest that Josh’s parents should be prosecuted.
These accusations have long been employed by LGBT-rights advocates and repeated by a largely unquestioning and sympathetic press. The narrative goes like this: Bible-believing Christians don’t like gays. Some Christians’ kids come out as gay to their parents. When they do, at best they get scolded. At worst, they’re kicked out of the house and told never to come back. This makes kids with Christian parents feel worthless, hopeless, and rejected. Suicide becomes their only option.
Clearly, we are told, the solution is for Christian parents to get over their old-time religion and create a welcoming and affirming environment for the child. They should enable their child to securely explore his or her sexual identity in a safe and loving environment in which tolerance is the only virtue. In this scenario, the terms are either complete affirmation or complete abandonment—but the gospel recognizes neither of these as viable options. This false dichotomy is a straw man based on an ideology that sees sexual liberation and parental affirmation as the road to healthy self-actualization.
In a culture where this narrative is accepted as gospel, how should we respond?
Does Christianity Hurt LGBT Teens?
The Christian gospel offers a third possibility to parents whose children are struggling with their sexuality—as it does to all people. Christianity, while never promising complete liberation from one’s battles with sin, liberates individuals to experience their truest self, as made in the image of God. The gospel also promises unending love toward the other.
We understand how Christian teaching on sexuality can seem limiting or restrictive to the expression of a person’s sexual identity. Christianity makes normative claims, which means it directs our sexuality toward certain purposes and chastens us from embracing certain sexual desires. But a crucial caveat must be noted here: not all desires are equal. There are disordered or sinful desires that should not be acted on or embraced, because they thwart God’s plan for human flourishing. Good desires can themselves act as a way of helping us grow closer to God, as in the vocation of marriage.
What we often overlook is that our turn toward sin causes us to rebel not only against God, but against our own createdness. When we abandon sound ethics, we not only harm our relationship with God; we also harm ourselves. Sin harms us spiritually, in that it deadens us to heavenly obligation. It is also physically and mentally destructive. A person who acts on every sensual desire or psychological perception is not a free person. Instead, he becomes enslaved to disordered impulses.
Kids struggling to come to terms with their identities may be in an awkward position if their parents are Christians. People of faith cannot ignore or deny that we have heard of young people who commit suicide or seriously harm themselves because their rigidly religious parents have condemned them or kicked them out of the house. But is it then reasonable to conclude that Christian beliefs must put LGBT kids at danger? Absolutely not.
Quite the opposite is true. It is a fundamental command of Christianity to love others unconditionally. We are called to love even those who insult and hate us. If God gives us the grace to do this, surely we can love our children, even if they challenge our values. Think of the story of the Prodigal Son and his boundlessly gracious father. If we are truly to live as Christians, we can only cast ourselves on the Father’s loving forgiveness and extend the same grace to others.
How Do Christian Parents Respond?
Few have made a careful study of how different families actually respond to their children when such news is delivered. Probably the best scholar who has done so is Cornell’s Ritch Savin-Williams, an indefatigable advocate for gay and lesbian teens and the author of Mom, Dad, I’m Gay: How Families Negotiate Coming Out and The New Gay Teenager. He argues that it doesn’t help gay and lesbian youth to contribute to the rejection and suicide narrative. Savin-Williams is not a fan of Dan Savage’s celebrated “It Gets Better” campaign, because he finds there is no gay-youth suicide epidemic. He reports that generally, most teens who identify as gay or lesbian develop about as well as other teens do, experiencing the normal ups and downs of adolescence.
Savin-Williams also explains that teens who come out to their Christian parents are generally treated just as well, if not better, than kids who come out to other types of parents. In fact, he finds that it is often parents’ Christian theology that contributes to a caring—though often difficult and awkward—interaction and navigation through this news. More often than not, families with children who struggle with same-sex attraction do not respond with judgment, condemnation, or rejection. Rather, there is typically a promise of unconditional love and comfort for the child, even while the parents themselves wobble through coming to terms with this startling news.
Typically, those who finally come out of the closet have done so after a long, hard process of soul-searching, struggle, and self-questioning. This is precisely why the event itself is so important to them. But when this dramatic news is announced, those to whom it is announced are expected to come to terms with it immediately and respond with unflinching affirmation and support. This expectation just isn’t realistic about the nature of such news and the impact it has on many families. Awkwardly stumbling through such news is dramatically different from refusing to accept a vulnerable person with grace and compassion. It is human to struggle; it is divine to love the other without conditions.
Christ calls all of us to a life of holy obedience. And He calls us to love others as He loves them. This means we must not only live by a sexual ethic—we must also love others, regardless of whether they live by that ethic or not. For parents to encourage their children to do the former is not a violation of the later.
What Does It Mean to Affirm?
At RNS, Eliel Cruz went so far as to say that “If you’re unwilling to raise, support, and affirm an LGBT child—you shouldn’t be having children. If you’re a Christian who has an LGBT child please affirm them for who God made them to be.” Cruz believes “the church has failed to equip parents with the resources to affirm their transgender children. Indeed, if the church has done anything, it has contributed to a fear-mongering narrative that led to the Alcorn’s rejecting Leelah. And there are serious implications of being rejected by your family.”
Christians affirm LGBT individuals as God’s image-bearers, as we do all individuals. But, in Cruz’s eyes, this is not enough. To fulfill his vision, Christians would have to jettison biblical truth in exchange for a flaccid and unbiblical notion of “affirmation” and a flavor-of-the-month medical finding that will probably end up contradicting itself over time. We can and we must affirm the dignity of each and every person, giving them the love they deserve as a child of God. What we cannot do is affirm individuals in what the Bible tells us is sin.
Christianity makes normative claims. It makes claims about how the world should be and how people ought to act. In short, it calls people to repentance. When the oughts of creation are broken and we stray from God’s plan, Christianity offers a way of salvation: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But oughts aren’t unique to Christianity. Even the most ardent secularist acknowledges that there are certain values (such as tolerance) that all people ought to abide by. The oughts of secularism, however, often conflict with the oughts of Christianity. The modern clash in sexual ethics is not surprising, because secularism and Christianity are based on competing conceptions of reality. Secularism teaches that a person’s gender can be disassociated from his or her biology. Christianity rejects this dualism. Christians believe that masculinity and femininity are not just psychologically or socially constructed realities—they’re immutably tied to our biology and chromosomal design.
In this moment, the secularists and sexual revolutionaries are asking Christians to repent. But we can’t do that—even if it appears that we’re to blame for the suffering of those who experience gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction. The truth is, Christianity is not to blame. The gospel only promises life. It doesn’t promise earthly utopia or tranquility. Obedience often means resisting our desires and longings. Unlike secularism, Christianity does not teach us that all desires are equal and worthy of acceptance.
In today’s world, Christians might be tempted to apologize for the Bible. But we must not do that. Instead, we must lovingly tell our LGBT neighbors that there is a better way for them. We must lovingly walk beside them, rejecting the awkward labels and discomfort that may follow from having these new friends in our congregations. We must dispel the perception that a disagreement with a person’s lived experiences means the only recourse is suicide. We must not isolate those who struggle with their sexual identity and desires. We must not be embarrassed by them. We must love them, as our neighbors.
The church cannot sit idly by. We must offer a real alternative to the false dilemma of affirmation or abandonment, learning how to be Christ to all who came to us full of both grace and truth! (John 1:14) We must recognize people’s internal struggles—as well as our own—and point them toward resources that counsel them, not toward repression and self-hate, but a deeper understanding of biblical sexuality and God’s intentions for them. We must passionately fight, both for these particular neighbors and against these issues at hand. Deal with people with grace and the issues in truth.
Glenn T. Stanton is the director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family and the author of Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor: Being Friends in Grace and Truth (Moody, 2014). Andrew Walker is the Director of Policy Studies at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.